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Sunday, April 14, 2024
HomeRunning a studioEmotional intelligence in game development: Let's talk about responsibility and regret

Emotional intelligence in game development: Let’s talk about responsibility and regret

This article is part of the game-dev advice newsletter Levelling the Playing Field by Rami Ismail. If you want to know more about the art, craft and science of game development, subscribe here.

Feelings are a deeply under-discussed part of game development, and an even more deeply underappreciated part of entrepreneurship. We get so lost in ideas of “hustling” and “keeping up” that a lot of people lose track of themselves and their feelings. I had been running a studio for half a decade before I learned the term emotional intelligence, and even now -a decade later- researching, studying, and getting guidance on the topic teaches me new, more effective, and more honest ways of looking at myself, my leadership, and my creative practice.

As a whole, the industry slowly but certainly continues to explore the topic of emotional intelligence – there are increasingly potent discussions about deeply underdiscussed but acknowledged feelings & afflictions as anxiety, burnout, and safety. Talking to studio leaders, team leaders, directors, and indies I have come to believe that at least the topics of responsibility and regret really should be added to that list of topics.

Fear and Failure

Regret (like other fears) is rarely a directly visible cause for issues at a studio, but I’ve established regret and fear of failure as a root cause for leadership issues in independent studios quite frequently in the past few years. Regret brings out feelings of shame and anxiety, and people who are experiencing negative emotions (for example, post-launch depression, a project failure, or personal issues) often experience regret more strongly. In a leadership context, regret can cause indecision, unnecessary pivoting, uncertainty, and misplacement of responsibilities – leading to creative stagnation & loss of resources, process, motivation, focus, and/or direction.

Rami Ismail

The feeling of regret is far more common than you’d think. A commonly cited study suggests that people feel regret for about 30% of their choices, but “[anticipate] regret for almost 70% of  future decisions”. In other words: regret is more common than we think among others, but it is also less frequent than we predict it to be for ourselves.

Illusion of informed decision

Science also suggests that the possibility of regret is disproportionately increased by an increase in choice. That is particularly damning for creatives and (creative) entrepreneurs, as we’re often working in a borderline infinite opportunity space, and often have to resolve our issues by surfacing as many options as possible, then taking a bet based on a combination of pooled knowledge, experience, and gut feelings. More often than not, the amount of variables affecting our choices is nigh-infinite, and the illusion of making informed decisions is only retroactively applied.

If you’re in charge of a company, team, or game – you’ll face regret frequently, and learning to manage both the effects of having regret and the effects of anticipating regret will play a part in managing your emotional well-being and your projects’ continuation. If we’re not going to be able to avoid regret, the goal becomes to harness it: to use its ability to show us where we could improve, to warn us of potential mistakes, to turn it into motivation to be better, and to use it as evidence of our growth.

Canary in the coal mine

Your opportunity in anticipation of regret is that anxiety for future regret -a fear- can act as a canary in the coal mine, an early warning that your subconscious sees risk of failure even when your conscious mind does not. The feeling can help slow you down when other momentums wish to pull you forward, and give you additional time to consider mitigation.

Image by jcomp on Freepik

Your risk with fear for future regret is that it can exacerbate choice paralysis, and slow your momentum beyond a healthy point for someone in leadership. And the more you slow down beyond that point, the more you end up feeling like you have to justify the delay, and you end up over-analysing to the point where you become overly critical of any ideas that aren’t fully-formed solutions yet. As no idea is ever a full-formed solution, these standstills are usually only broken by necessity, and in the meanwhile waste valuable opportunities and resources.

Anxiety-inducing

Your opportunity with experiencing regret is to explore your regrets and learn from past events. If explored in a healthy and non-judgemental way, regret teaches us a lot about a specific sequence of choices and outcomes that might or might not be relevant at a later point in life.

Your risk with experiencing regret itself is that it can be debilitating and anxiety-inducing. Not processing and dealing with your regrets in a healthy way can cause unreasonable levels of self-doubt, resulting in a loss of your ability to lead or act successfully. If you find yourself struggling with regret, reading about the topic can help a lot, or -if financially viable- consulting with a therapist to explore your regrets and how regret fits into your life’s journey.

The two core lessons that have always helped me with regret in my business dealings are simple: The only bad choice is an uninformed one and people always make the best choice they can.

Kids these days

No human ever looks at two choices, and picks the one they believe to be worse. If I’m going to offer you a choice between option A and B, you’re never going to pick the one you think is worse. You might learn later that another option was better, but the version of you that made that choice made the best choice they could.

Image by aopsan on Freepik

In a way, regret is your mind and subconscious evaluating the costs of integrating new information, perspective, experience, and knowledge – but your mind judges the old you from its new perspective. Humans are infamously bad at imagining ourselves in the past without having our current self, with all of our newly found knowledge and perspective, falsely bleed into those memories – hence the millenia-old complaints about “kids these days”.

Accept and embrace

Regret then is not something to avoid, it is something to accept and embrace: an opportunity to explore & reflect on the processes that got you to a decision, and to honestly evaluate if getting to the now more obviously correct decision was feasible at all. You’ll often find there was no way there without experiencing the choice you regret: iteration is an inherent part of life & creativity, and so is getting it wrong. We know this in game development, in code, in art, in writing – you can’t get it right on the first try. We don’t fear refactoring, or redoing a sketch, or re-writing a paragraph or even a chapter – nor do we find failure in it. In leadership and business, the same should apply: you should allow yourself the space to fail, learn, and iterate.

I’ve found that slowly integrating (and continuing to integrate) these ways of thinking into my practices over the years has helped me become a better leader, and I’ve taught this way to many. Creative fields often involve navigating a vast landscape of possibilities, making fully informed decisions incredibly uncommon. It’s important to acknowledge the inherent uncertainty and make peace with the fact that decisions are made with the best available information at the time.

Actionables

  • Prioritize understanding your emotions for better decision-making your creative career. This is a topic far beyond the scope of a single newsletter article, but emotional intelligence is a topic worth reading about, researching, and especially in leadership positions, I’d recommend working with a therapist even if you’re doing well.
  • View regret as a chance to learn and improve. Analyze past choices without self-criticism, and whenever you feel regret, try to instead see it as a journey of learning and understanding. What new insights have you gained that allow you to feel this regret?
  • Accept the uncertainty in creative fields. Game development, like any creative field, remains a craft of iterative nature. The more you fight this and try to get things right the first time, the less good your work will be. Regret is an inherent part of this cycle, but the more focused and agile your iterations are, the less resources you’ll have lost.

Top image: Photo by Kenny Eliason / Unsplash

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